Lady Ravenna Boscastle was too engrossed in her current intrigue to notice the Duke of Rochecliffe standing on the other side of the ballroom. He was insulted that she had ignored him twice in the same night. No one would guess they had been friends for almost a decade. Not as close as he would have liked, but they’d shared bittersweet memories, indeed. From the moment Simon had begun to understand the meaning of desire, he’d assumed Ravenna would be his wife.
It seemed only natural that a friendship like theirs would deepen into love. She was the first girl he’d wanted to kiss. And the last woman he would place in danger.
Yet he managed to do both before the sun rose the next day.
For now he was puzzled that she refused to acknowledge him.
He had fallen under her family’s spell over a decade ago while visiting his boyhood companions in the Welsh castle that belonged to the collateral branch of the scandalous Boscastle line. He’d maintained ties to her family ever since.
Once upon a time Ravenna had run to Simon for protection. She had looked out for him. Whenever he so much as sniffled, she would brew a revolting herbal tea, which made him wish for death and he drank only to please her. Sometimes the passionate notions it put in his head made him fancy she’d slipped him a love potion.
She’d bandaged his arm when her twin brother Rhys inadvertently stabbed him with a knife during a raucous supper. She had read to him when the family and castle dogs gathered around the fire on snowy nights. He recalled stories of Merlin and forbidden marriages between human men and fairy women. Her lyrical Welsh voice and deep laughter soothed his demons and made those improbable tales seem possible. She had made him believe in love.
Tonight she was acting as if they were strangers.
They had not come face-to-face in years, but he hadn’t sprouted horns or a forked tail in the interim. He wondered if she was avoiding him because she’d discovered his secret, and she was embarrassed for him. It was unlikely. Only two other men had known of Simon’s humiliation. One had suffered a sudden violent death. The second had sworn he would never tell.
Another lady, not desirable at all in an enormous ostrich-feathered headdress, hovered into his view. She interrupted his study of Ravenna.
“Simon, you beautiful disgrace,” she said with an indiscreet smile. “What a pleasure to find you in London. Shall we renew our acquaintance with a dance?”
He inclined his head. “Did I promise I would?”
“You never promised me anything.”
“Then not tonight. I have another assignation.”
“Who is she?”
He straightened. “I hesitate to admit I don’t know her name.”
“That sounds completely decadent.”
“One can hope.”
“But not for you,” she said with a wistful laugh. “You’re as elusive as ever.”
Not as elusive as Ravenna. Or as enticing, even without the winsome smile she’d withheld from him tonight.
The woman shrugged in disappointment and wandered back to her friends. He returned to study the softly rounded figure in sky-blue satin. Ravenna knew perfectly well he was looking at her. Had she been forbidden to talk to him? Had someone else distracted her?
She had seen him earlier in the evening at the supper buffet and looked right through him. He had watched her toy with a bowl of orange pudding and then vanish with her twin, who’d given him a friendly wave and mouthed, Champagne together later tonight? Their subtle conspiracy reminded Simon of the first evening he and Ravenna had met.
He’d been staying at Castle Glamorgan for the winter. He and two of the Boscastle brothers were schoolmates at the time; Simon was mourning his father’s death. Ravenna had clumped past him on the small tower staircase, dressed as a young gentleman in a plumed hat and boots for her part in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the great hall.
The original comedy featured a twin brother and sister separated during a shipwreck, with the heroine disguising herself as a male and marrying a duke at the end. In this revised performance, however, Rhys wore a lady’s costume and played his sister’s part in a few memorable scenes.
Ravenna hadn't paid Simon undue notice in the beginning. In fact, no one in the castle seemed impressed that he was Simon Caverley, an orphaned aristocrat who had become the sixth Duke of Rochecliffe at fifteen. But then he was by nature reserved, unaccustomed to her tempestuous family. Simon had been raised not to express sentiment except through the acceptable channels of sports that allowed young gentlemen to batter one another brainless.
She was a duke’s only daughter, and she hadn’t let the privilege spoil her. She and her three brothers, the eldest deceased, had been brought up by a pair of steel-willed aunts who accepted Simon into their lively and flawed brood.
The past misted over. He narrowed his gaze. Ravenna was inching one step at a time toward the doors to the terrace. She looked as demure as an angel in her puffy-sleeved ball gown, her black curls confined by a pearl circlet. Knowing her as he did, however, he questioned her motives. Did she have cause to escape? Had someone upset her?
His hackles rose at the thought. He hadn’t noticed her talking to anyone except Rhys. The celebration tonight at the Park Lane mansion of her cousin Grayson Boscastle, the Marquess of Sedgecroft, was in honor of his son Rowan’s birthday.
Unofficially the family was also celebrating Ravenna’s upcoming wedding to the Welsh-English baronet she had been pledged to marry by her late father.
With luck Simon would have concluded his mission before he bumped into the betrothed couple. He had avoided meeting her fiancé until now. He wasn’t about to offer false congratulations. He had never recovered from losing her.
There was no reason for the world to know he had pursued her in his heart for what felt like an eternity. It was too late to make another bid for her unless he resorted to a desperate act. Which honor and friendship disallowed.
Furthermore, Simon’s private quest for retribution had to come before romance.
He’d been judged unworthy of her in the past. In his current dilemma, he certainly wasn’t good for her now. But seeing her again destroyed him.
“Hiding from someone?” a cultured male voice said at his side. “Or on the prowl?”
He turned to acknowledge Lieutenant Colonel Heath Boscastle, one of Ravenna’s London cousins. Simon trusted Heath unreservedly and wouldn’t think to deceive him. “A little of both,” he said. “And you?”
“Neither.” Simon had the embarrassing impression that Heath understood who held Simon’s interest and why. Could Heath know more than he should? Not unless Simon had been betrayed by a friend.
“Grayson’s wife has me on patrol,” Heath said. “She woke up with a sense that something will go amiss tonight. Judging by family history, it will. I’m not a bit superstitious, but it’s been proven that whenever one or two Boscastles appear in public together, the devil comes into active play.”
“Yes. I believe the stage has been set.” His eyes strayed again to Ravenna. He would dearly love to join her in an escapade. When had he last enjoyed himself with a woman he trusted? “Everyone seems to be behaving so far.”
“Nothing is as it seems,” Heath said. “It’s early yet. Shall we smoke a cigar in the garden while I make a nuisance of myself?”
He hesitated. “I’m headed there now, in fact.”
He saw no point in concealing the truth from a former spy who could detect a lie several leagues away. “Yes -- if you don’t mind.”
“Why should I?” Heath declined a glass of champagne offered by a footman balancing a silver tray. “I noticed a waiter slipping you a note after supper.”
“Good grief,” he said. “Do you have a spying glass stuffed up your sleeve?”
Heath’s lean face creased in amusement. “Not quite. I also noticed you have a pair of opera glasses inside your jacket. Rather an odd accessory for an impromptu tryst, isn’t it? If I didn’t know better, I’d be concerned for your morals. Not that I am in a position to pass judgment.”
“You’ve caught me out,” Simon said with a grin. “I suppose it takes a rogue to recognize one. As to the spyglass – isn’t there an operetta later?”
“This doesn’t sound like the typical arrangement,” Heath said, not about to be misled.
“I don’t have time to explain.” He lowered his voice. “What if I said I only wanted a closer look at Venus in the night sky?”
“Stargazing is a satisfying activity. But why not visit Grayson’s observatory? There is a magnificent view from the rooftop. And a telescope.”
“Too many people.”
Heath clearly didn’t believe a word of it. “Certain elements of nature are best appreciated in the company of others.”
“I’m not in the mood for scientific conversation.”
“This rendezvous involves your personal crusade?”
“An eligible duke stands out like a diamond in a bed of dirt. Be cautious.”
“I intend to.”
“Happy hunting,” Heath said after a thoughtful pause. “Send a footman to me if you need a hand. Until then I’ll be dancing attendance on Julia. Oh, Ravenna is staying with us, as you might have heard. The house is crawling with callers and mantua-makers. I’ll be relieved when her wedding is over.”
So would Simon.
“When is it again?” he asked.
“Three weeks from now,” Heath said. “Are you attending?”
He made a face. “No way out of it, is there? I feel obligated. Especially with Griff likely to miss the joyful event.” Griffin Boscastle, the Duke of Glamorgan, was Ravenna’s eldest living brother and guardian. Griff’s infant son and his wife Harriet had contracted a case of measles en route to the wedding. Both mother and child were recovering from their fever, but travel had been delayed.
Heath hesitated. “Do you approve of Ravenna’s fiancé?”
Simon loathed the bastard on principle. “I don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. I’ve been away, spending time with my brother and nieces. Rhys and I keep in touch, but Ravenna hasn’t talked to me in years.”
“Have you offended her?”
“I know I’m not the most tactful man in the kingdom, but I can’t see how. I’ll ask Rhys when I see him alone.”
“She’s sneaking outside,” Heath said in an undertone. “I wonder if she’s meeting her baronet.”
“I’ve no idea. One wouldn’t think they’d have to go to that much bother this close to the wedding.”
“You aren’t planning a liaison with her, are you, Simon?”
He almost choked. “Would I survive the rest of the night if I were?”
“Just remember that a tryst can turn into a marriage trap.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” In truth, Simon would prefer that the summons in his pocket had less to do with kisses in the dark than it did with information about his sister’s alleged suicide over a year ago. He wanted answers.
He had been visiting his younger brother in Austria at the time of Susannah’s death. He hadn’t believed her fatal fall to be an accident when he’d received the devastating news from her husband, Matthew Egerton, the Earl of Bruxton. His suspicions had not been allayed upon his return to England to grieve. And to make inquiries.
Meet me outside at the statue of Achilles after the last dance.
What did he have to lose by meeting an unidentified lady in the garden? There was a remote chance she might offer some insight into Susannah’s last days. The invitation insinuated nothing of that nature.
It wouldn’t be a sin to allow a woman to amuse him for a few hours. He could refuse her pursuit if they did not appeal to each other.
But he couldn’t chance a run-in with Ravenna and risk stirring up the embers of their past. As far as he knew, she had no idea that he had cared for her. Why disclose his unrequited longing on the eve of her marriage to someone else?
Could he resist her if she admitted affection for him?
As Heath said, one expected an indiscretion or two to occur at the popular Marquess of Sedgecroft’s parties. Simon doubted a liaison at such a frivolous event would change his life in the least.
At an age where he should be searching for a wife and starting a family, he was shadowing a predator. Ravenna was safer seeking misadventure than becoming involved in his life.